The cocktail is an art form that peaked in the middle of the 20th century and has been in rapid decline since. As a young lad, I was schooled in the fine art of cocktailing by my father and grandfathers, I learned many valuable lessons that I plan to pass on. I also want to resurrect some of the old classics that vastly surpass the sugary & fruity concoctions made today with their simplicity, elegance and bold flavors. Most of the time I will focus on one drink, and to provide, at least in my opinion, the definitive recipe, but hope to expand to other related topics as I see fit. Please mix yourself a cocktail, read, drink, and enjoy!

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Tonic Tasting Twenty-Ten

To follow up on my recent windmill chase I decided to see how my old standby tonic, Schweppes, stands up against a couple of self-proclaimed “premium” tonics, Q Tonic and Fever Tree. To maintain the scientific integrity of this experiment, I used the proportions found here.

I am sure that my high school science teachers would be disgusted with me, but I went in with a fairly weak hypothesis, “I don’t have a clue which one will prove superior, but I get to mix three cocktails and drink them all!” About half way through my testing, I decided to add a little bit of merit to this by judging each tonic on three tiered variables. First and foremost was taste. Second, based on the claims of one bottle, I compared carbonation. At the bottom, and to be used purely as a tiebreaker, I decided to look at the ingredients used. I intentionally did not take cost into account, as obviously you cannot put a price on an amazing cocktail.

I will begin with taste; for the sake of journalistic integrity I will admit to enjoying all three immensely and at the end of three cocktails, could not crown one the obvious winner. Q Tonic had a more distinctive flavor, it was lighter and less sweet than the other two, but the result left me felling like my drink was watered down. The Fever Tree and the Schweppes versions were nearly indistinguishable in taste. I doubt that even the most discerning palate would be able to tell the difference between the two on the first sip and surely not after two or three rounds. For round one, I am declaring a three-way tie between the competitors, but the judge deserves an honorable mention for triple fisting on a Friday afternoon!

Carbonation, the only reason I included this is I felt I needed another paragraph and Q Tonic makes a point of saying they use “champagne carbonation” on their label. I will save you all the suspense and admit that after thirty seconds in the glass the carbonation in all three was nearly gone and none of them seemed any different.

This brings me to our last criteria the quality of ingredients. I have often been accused of using premium booze in drinks where the average drunk will not be able to tell the difference, and while I agree with this to a point, I also feel that to make a well made cocktail one cannot scrimp on the quality of the booze. I feel the same about the other ingredients in a drink. So in looking at these three tonics, the premium brands seem much more concerned with their ingredients. Q uses organic agave as its sweetener and Fever Tree uses cane sugar, while Schweppes uses “high fructose corn syrup and/or sugar.” That vaguery of “and/or” makes me a little wary. The balance of the ingredients is also indicative of the smaller companies choosing to use more organic and natural ingredients. So for this round, I have to give a nod to Q and Fever Tree.

In conclusion, I will say that neither of the challengers proved to be so superior to Schweppes that I feel a need to replace it, but both were also tasty enough to be used without reservation. I do like the fact that Schweppes is readily available, where as I had to search in nicer specialty stores for the other two. So it comes down to your tolerance for mass-produced products containing high fructose corn syrup versus products produced in smaller quantities using superior ingredients. In a perfect world, I would probably throw my support behind Fever Tree due to it tasting nearly identical to Schweppes but made using better ingredients from a smaller company. The fact that it is more difficult to get though will probably equate to me still using a healthy amount of Schweppes. As for Q, I do like the distinctive flavor and am going to do some follow up experiments with different spirits and see if I can find it a permanent place in my mixer repertoire.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Building A Better Gin & Tonic (A.K.A. Reinventing the Wheel)

Few things taste better on a hot summer day than an ice-cold gin and tonic. In a heat induced haze I decided to set out on a quixotic journey to try and find the perfect recipe for this warm weather staple and then improve on it.

Most people are at least mildly familiar with the history of this combination and its place in the lore of the British Empire. For those like me who are casualties of the American education system, this grand concoction was introduced by the army of the British East India Company. Tonic contains quinine, which was used to prevent malaria, but it had a very bitter taste. So someone had a brilliant revelation: what better way to make medication more palatable than to add booze and sip it at sundown!

My own history with this cocktail is much more sordid, not only was this the drink of choice on my twenty-first birthday, but it is my very best inept bartender story. I was in London a few years ago after two weeks in the UK. I had sipped scotch in Scotland and and consumed more than my fair share of pub pints around the city. It was my last night and I felt it my obligation as a man of the cocktail to have a gin and tonic before leaving. I wandered down to the bar in the lobby of my hotel, a nice establishment in an upscale neighborhood, and asked the kind chap behind the bar for a gin and tonic. He responded with a look of confusion and I became mildly concerned. I was in London, at a bar and a simple gin and tonic was causing the barman distress, at first I thought it was a joke, what reasonably educated bartender in London can’t make this British staple. I quickly realized that this guy was not joking and preceded to painfully walk him through the drink, literally ice cube by ice cube. The result was drinkable, but I was totally disgusted at what passed for a bartender. That was my last trip to London, but next time I’m staying at the Savoy, or at least near enough I can use their bar as my own.

Okay, back to the drink at hand. Despite my previous anecdote, I don’t think I’ve ever had an awful gin and tonic, but I also can’t recall having an incredible one. I decided that this warm weather and medicinal classic deserved better and I undertook the enviable task of creating the quintessential gin and tonic. I went into this well aware that I was probably fighting an uphill battle against not only the laws of physics, but probably Murphy as well. I began with the most basic dilemma the gin to tonic ratio and from there experimented with different techniques to bring the drink to life. Alas, the results were worth the time and effort; behold the second coming of the gin and tonic!

Start with two ounces of Plymouth gin in an empty old fashioned glass, gently place a slice of lime into the glass and muddle well to release the juice as well as the oils, fill the glass with ice and add three ounces of Schweppes tonic. I have sampled most of the readily available supermarket brand tonics and Schweppes is the best of them. That’s all there is to it. I polled a distinguished panel of judges to validate my findings against a cocktail made with the same proportion of ingredients in the traditional manner and the results were conclusive.

While at its peak the sun may have never set on the British Empire, but the time has come for the sun to set on mediocre gin and tonics. Serve these to your friends with a nod to the absolute genius who thought to fight malaria with cocktails and the ballsiness needed to take over half the globe from an island in the Atlantic!

Gin & Tonic
2 oz gin
3 oz tonic
slice of lime
Pour the gin into an empty old fashioned glass, add the slice of lime and muddle. Fill the glass with ice and add the tonic. Stir and serve.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Suffering Bastard

I have wanted to write about this cocktail for quite a while purely because it has such a great name, but it is also a great drink. I am not sure exactly why, but this cocktail came to mind the morning after my son’s first birthday party. But I realized that the name was the perfect description for the way I felt. I have never used this as a hangover cure, but if you could stomach it, I think it would do wonders for you.

This is another drink with some vague details about the original recipe, even the creator seems to contradict himself, but the history seems to be consistent. This fine drink was born in the 1940s at the Shepheard's Hotel in Cairo Egypt by bartender Joe Scialom. The story goes that it was originally called the Suffering Bar Steward, but was slurred by regular patrons into its current designation. I have always made this drink with bourbon, but in researching another drink I found some variations that call for rum, most of those are poor modern bastardizations. There is some evidence that brandy was used in the original recipe, which would make sense; I doubt bourbon was highly prevalent in Egypt in the 1940s. I turned to Robert Hess, one of my favorite resources to see what he uses; he also uses bourbon so I have stuck to my original recipe.

Do not be scared off by the first two ingredients, it is an interesting combination that works well together. Start with an old fashioned glass full of ice, add an ounce each of bourbon (Maker’s works well here) and gin (Plymouth is my preference), pour in thee ounces of ginger ale, top it off with a dash of Angostura bitters and a wedge of lime. Prepare to silence your doubters with a perfectly executed “don’t question my cocktails” look.

Suffering Bastard
1 oz bourbon
1 oz gin
3 oz ginger ale
dash of bitters
Construct this in an old fashioned glass, pour all ingredients over ice, add a lime wedge and stir.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Cocktail Cherries

It’s cherry season! This is the time of year to prepare for those long cold winter nights, where a good Manhattan in front of a roaring fire is the only thing that gets you through until spring. As I have mentioned before, those bright red candies in a jar are an abomination that have no business being part of a fine cocktail (with one notable exception). I know that there are other options out there, but they can be expensive and difficult to find, so my recommendation to you is make your own!

Not only are they very simple to make, your friends will be very impressed. So head to the nearest farmers market or fruit stand and pick up a few pounds of cherries and get started!

Start by stemming, pitting and washing three pounds of dark sweet cherries and set them aside. Pour one half cup of sugar into a large saucepan (I am going to try pure cane sugar this year, but in the past I have used just plain sugar), add a half cup of water, an ounce of lemon juice and two cinnamon sticks. Bring the mixture to a boil and reduce the heat to low add the cherries and simmer for five minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in five ounces of the alcohol of your choice. I use bourbon since most of the drinks I use the cherries in are bourbon based, but brandy, scotch or rum would all impart slightly different flavors, feel free to experiment. Let the mixture cool before placing the entire mixture in a jar. Store these in the fridge and they will last all winter long.

This recipe can be halved or doubled depending on your rate of consumption. Also, in a pinch frozen cherries can be used.

Cocktail Cherries
3 lbs sweet cherries
½ cup sugar
½ cup water
1 oz lemon juice
2 cinnamon sticks
5 oz bourbon
Stem, pit and wash the cherries. Heat the sugar, water, lemon juice and cinnamon sticks to a boil in a large saucepan. Add the cherries and let simmer for five minutes. Remove the pan from heat and stir in the bourbon. Let mixture cool completely before placing it in a jar and refrigerating.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Bicicletta

Over the last month the majority or my alcohol consumption has been in the form of the fermented grape, which, one might say, makes it difficult to refine fine cocktails to be shared with the drinking public, as proof to the contrary I offer you the bicicletta.

The history of this fine mixture continues to elude me despite hours and hours of research. I must admit that my research has been limited to making the drink and lounging on my porch, using the same search terms over and over in Google hoping for different results. For the sake of a refreshing summer beverage, I suggest coming up with your own history, incorporating a beautiful summer day in one of the Cinque Terre, a fantastic trattoria, and stolen glances at a man/woman across the patio.

The base of this drink is white wine, Italian of course, I prefer a crisp Pinot Grigio as it balances well with the second ingredient. The next ingredient is one of my very favorites, and one that no Italian cocktail should be without Campari. This can be constructed in either a glass or a wine goblet, depending on your taste. I typically use the glass because I find ice cubes sloshing around in a goblet awkward. Whatever your choice, fill it with ice and add equal parts of the Campari and wine, two ounces of each is a good amount. Splash enough club soda over the top to add fizz but not dilute the drink; usually just enough to fill the glass after the four ounces of Campari/wine have been added. Stir to mix and garnish with a slice of lemon. This is a very versatile drink that can be served throughout the day.

Bicicletta
2 oz campari
2 oz pinot grigio
club soda
Pour the spirits into a glass filled with ice cubes and top with club soda. Garnish with a slice of lemon.